Equipment for Looking

Table (Tisch), by Gerard Richter

No.1: First Works of 362 Artists is a book based on the premise that most artists have a piece they consider their true first painting. Editors Francesca Richer and Matthew Rosensweig attended a lecture by Robert Storr in conjunction with the Gerard Richter retrospective at MOMA in 2002. Richter had chosen to start the exhibition with a painting he did in 1962, Table (image above.) Although Richter had been painting for several years before this one emerged, this is the painting where Richter recognized himself as an artist for the first time.

In the same lecture Storr mentioned that Barnett Newman considered his painting Onement I as his true beginning even though it also showed up several years after he had been working. Richer and Rosensweig were curious enough to investigate this idea further.

They sent out a request to artists that was intentionally open-ended—a personal interpretation of what consititutes a first work. Some artists responded with images from childhood, others cited works that came later but were meaningful. Many had a piece they already considered their first.

The book consists of one image with a written statement by each artist. Some are recognizable names but not all. Reading each artist’s reason for choosing a particular work of art as their “first” is a window into how the vision of visual expression unfolds.

A few samples:

Cecily Brown: “This painting…was among the first paintings I made that weren’t embarrassed to be paintings.”

Jake Berthot: “You could say the Little Flag Painting art talk gibberish was a total misread of Jasper Johns—which it was—but the guts of it came from being really pissed off. It was the first time feeling and seeing became one.”

Sue Williams: “I was looking for a way of working, like a format for my words and drawings and collected images to come together. To make a work of art, I suppose. This was a frustrating time. An artist friend of mine told me “just keep trying things, and a door will open.” I said, “WHAT?” Also around this time I was impressed by a piece by Mike Kelley. it was an installation piece about insect eggs and seemed to go off the deep end. I thought this was very cool; you can do whatever you want. I didn’t know that.”

Rachel Whiteread: “As a postgraduate student at the Slade, I made a small work out of Sellotape. I suppose I was trying to create the skin of the table—an “occasional table” that had been in my family for years. The piece existed for only a few days. It was very fragile.

“Almost two years on, I made what I would consider my first “sculpture,” entitled Closet. It was cast directly from a wardrobe and covered in black felt; I was simply trying to make a childhood memory concrete. It changed my life.”

Tatsuo Miyajima: “My work focuses on the spirit of the user of technology, not on technology itself. People are always important. I am interested in art because it is born from people’s spirit. Art is in your mind. I call it “Art in You.” My work is equipment to look at your own self.”

6 Comment

  1. Altoon says:

    Interesting. If asked, I couldn’t come up with anything I’d consider a first painting.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      I feel the same way Altoon. But some of these stories are very compelling and I found the concept itself provocative. I don’t think it is a requirement!

  2. Cindy says:

    Deborah, this is inspiring to me. The idea of a first work, the first seed that grows the efforts after it. The “first cause.” When I look at finished works of art, poetry, books etc., I don’t get to see the blood, sweat, tears that went into making it. And I put those works above me in a certain way. It would seem that this book humanizes the process for all of us. I am sometimes frustrated when I can’t get something right the first time. But I think what you are saying is the first time has a freshness to it and to take a moment to reflect the tiny birth that was created, maybe not full term, but still a tidbit of true inspiration that is the beginning of something great. Thanks for keeping it real.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Cindy, I like the way you put it, that the final product doesn’t really tell you the story behind the scenes. The same is true of theater–I know you have been part of a production that has evolved as the collective performance takes form. This is a kind of window into the pre-show.

  3. I absolutely have a first artwork — a collage not a painting. I made it on a day when, if I didn’t do something I’d lose me. And goodgirl me cut up some images and glued them to a piece of paper, the angriest meanest baddest image I’d ever made. Changed my life, the first time I wasn’t doing someone else’s art. Nearly 30 years ago, changed my life like a fairy wand bonked on my brow.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Sloan, what a great story, and one told with that “only Sloan” flair. Thank you so much for sharing it here.

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